Tonight, an opponent that could be doing better but hasn't been better.
The Time: 7:00 PM
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-20-7) at the Boston Bruins (20-15-6; SBN Blog: Stanley Cup of Chowder)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the New Jersey Devils hosted Buffalo. The first period was one of the finest by the Devils all season long. Their neutral zone play was fantastic. They allowed very little time for Buffalo to do anything on offense. They kept coming at the Sabres and they got rewarded with goals. Patrik Elias got things started with a re-direction of a Mike Cammalleri shot for an early goal. Later in the period, Jordin Tootoo fired a laser right over Jhonas Enroth's shoulder to make it 2-0. During a penalty kill, not only did the Sabres get nothing on it, but Travis Zajac got a breakaway goal to make it 3-0. The Devils nearly got a fourth on one of the most dominant power play performances I've seen in years. The Devils were stupendous. In the second period, they got sloppy and Buffalo picked up on opportunities for odd man rushes and extended offensive shifts. Mikhail Grigorenko converted a power play to make it 3-1 and the Sabres nearly got a second. It was a poor period, but at least the third period started better from New Jersey. Alas, the sloppiness returned and a post denied the game from being a one-goal contest. Fortunately, the Devils settled down and Cammalleri sealed the game with an empty netter. Patrik Elias got assists on Zajac's and Cammalleri's goals to make it a three point night; thus, he became the 82nd player in NHL history to earn 1,000 points and the first to do it all with New Jersey. My recap of Elias' historic night is here.
The Last Bruins Game: On Wednesday night, the Bruins played Pittsburgh on national television. The Penguins brought the shots early and often. They also brought the game's first goal when Beau Bennett beat Tuukka Rask for a score. But the B's would equalize late in the first with the hammer-like shot of Zdeno Chara. The Bruins would continue to get out-shot heavily, but Patrice Bergeon was able to make it 2-1 Boston when he put home a rebound made by Marc-Andre Fleury. Alas, the Penguins' continuing knocking on the door would get answered and it came quickly early in the third period with a slapshot by Evgeni Malkin. Rask was tested again and again, but he held things up to force overtime. For the first time in four games, post-regulation play did not end in a loss for Boston. Bergeron would get a tip-in on a shot by Milan Lucic that made the difference in overtime and a 3-2 win. You can see the Bostonian-based reaction at Stanley Cup of Chowder.
The Last Devils-Bruins Game: On November 10, the Devils went into Boston in the hopes of breaking their losing streak. Hopes were raised when Travis Zajac got a quick goal off a feed from Mike Cammalleri right past Tuukka Rask. Those hopes were dashed when the Devils made errors, Carl Soderberg converted a power play, Patrice Bergeron picked up a puck not handled well by Eric Gelinas and scored, and the Devils spent more of that period without a shot on goal than if they did. Hopes returned when Jaromir Jagr scored his 708th career goal. Those were erased when Seth Griffith made a highlight out of Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, and Cory Schneider. They stayed erased when Bergeron found Reilly Smith open for a score to make it 2-4. The Devils did not respond with much and so they lost their fifth game in a row. Here's my recap of the loss. For the opposition's side, here's Sarah Connors' recap at Stanley Cup of Chowder.
The Goal: Look around. The Devils are going to play a considerably more talented and better-performing than their last few opponents. The Devils were able to build up big leads in their last two games and, for better or worse, cruise to victory. Boston's not going to let that happen easily. So for the Devils to make sure they don't get caught in the same trappings, they need to pay more attention to their surroundings. By doing this, they won't risk giving the puck back or getting it into bad spots with ill-advised passes or shots directly into traffic. The Devils aren't going to get far against decent-to-really-good teams by conceding possession easily. Maybe you don't want the team to go far, but if they want to at least be competitive, then this what they should do to start.
The Potential of Returning Players: The Devils did not practice on Wednesday, so it's unclear what the lines and pairings will be. But there may be some more available players for them tonight that could force some changes. According to Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, Peter Harrold, Martin Havlat, and Jacob Josefson will all travel with the team to Boston and could potentially play. I didn't like Mark Fraser or Seth Helgeson all that much against Buffalo, so I wouldn't complain if Harrold came in for either player. I didn't like Jon Merrill's performance either, but he's not coming out of the lineup. Havlat could be another forward for the top nine, though I doubt the co-coaches split up the unit of Adam Henrique, Scott Gomez and Jaromir Jagr or the unit of Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, and Mike Cammalleri to stick Havlat in either spot. In fact, I wonder who would move down to the fourth line to make room for Havlat, assuming he wouldn't be there. It's good to have options.
Josefson could easily be a replacement for Tim Sestito. If the co-coaches want to be bold, they could have him center the third line, allowing Zubrus to go back to wing. However, for Josefson to play at all, he would have to come off injured reserve. Someone else would have to be placed there, since no one could be sent down to Albany in time for the game since Tim Sestito would have to clear waivers. I think Gulitti is correct in asserting that it would likely be Eric Gelinas, who is only now just recovering from the flu enough to work out.
Still, this is all kind of exciting in that the Devils are getting ever closer to having a full lineup of NHL-caliber players. I wonder what that will look like when that happens, it's been some time since they have had that.
Cory Then Keith: Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice on Wednesday also noted that Cory Schneider will start this game. This should mean Keith Kinkaid will get the Islanders at The Rock on Friday. I'm fine with that. Schneider has been very good and Kinkaid has been good in most of his starts so far.
This is a Good Boston Team: They are currently in the middle of the Atlantic Division and they won their first game in recent memory. So they have had some struggles, but I wouldn't take them lightly.
For starters, the Bruins have a Corsi% of around 52% according to War on Ice, which ranks in the top-ten in the league. Bad teams don't tend to out-attempt their opponents regularly. Further, they're not undone by the percentages. Their even strength shooting percentage (7.7%, NJ is at 7.2%) and even strength save percentage (92.2%, NJ is at 93.1%) are fine. In terms of special teams, the Bruins' power play has a conversion rate around league median and their penalty kill success rate is just below 80%. Those could be better, but they're not anywhere near the worst in the league.
The Bruins still have plenty of talented players that can (or will) do damage tonight. They are still led up front by Patrice Bergeron, who has one of the best Corsi For percentages in the league (59.3%!) while going up against stiff competition night after night. Not to mention that he's also Boston's leading shooter (118) and scorer (ten goals, twenty assists). While Brad Marchand and Bergeron are the only ones with at least ten goals - Marchand has eleven, Bergeron has ten - the Bruins have six other players with at least seven goals and seventy shots on net. They are: Reilly Smith (nine goals, 84 shots), Loui Eriksson (nine goals, 74 shots), Carl Soderberg (eight goals, 84 shots), Torey Krug (eight goals, 88 shots), and Dougie Hamilton (seven goals, 108 shots). Like Detroit, this is a team with plenty of offensive threats and focusing on just one line will not do much good. I didn't even mention Milan Lucic (six goals, 62 shots) or Seth Griffith (six goals, 32 shots, won't have a Zidlicky-Salvador pairing to embarrass), which adds some further depth. Unlike Detroit, two of these players are defensemen so the Devils' wingers need to pay particular attention when either are on the ice.
Oh, and Zdeno Chara and David Krejci are back in the lineup. Chara is the big-minute, big-shooting monster he's always been. Krejci has been one of the several useful forwards the Bruins have had for a few years now. So the Devils will have to contend with all of that.
In net, the Bruins' goaltending hasn't been amazing but they've been OK. Tuukka Rask's overall save percentage isn't so hot at 91.1%, but that's more of a function of the penalty kill as his even strength save percentage is a healthier 92.1%. The backup, Niklas Svedberg, has been OK as well with a 91.8 even strength save percentage to go with a more amazing 91.7% penalty kill save percentage. Rask started against Pittsburgh, so I would expect Svedberg tonight. Maybe this is the main issue? That their goaltenders aren't posting up percentages around 93% at evens this season? But their percentages aren't bad enough to be a real liability.
I'm left scratching my head. They're good in possession, special teams aren't so great but they're not so bad, and they have plenty of talented players still firing pucks and picking up scores as a group like they have been for many years under Mr. Claude Julien. I think they're a good team just struggling a little bit, but I don't see why they can't play their way out of it. The win over Pittsburgh, while not great in that they got out-shot so much, may be the starting point for better days. Their position in the standings may not be what they want, but they're nowhere near the depths the Devils are stuck in. Toronto's not really good, the Rangers and Capitals are their main competition for the wild card, and there's half of a season left for Boston. The playoffs are still very possible. If management wants to make a change like a big trade or a new coach in the hopes that will "fix" things, then they have to be real careful as it could just as easily backfire on them and get worse. From where I sit, I think the B's should chill and just try to get their groove back instead of acting it's lost. They may even start to do so tonight, unfortunately to the detriment of the Devils.
Your Take: The Devils will face some better competition than their last two opponents tonight. How do you think they will come out for this one? Can the Devils be more aware of their surroundings before making a play on the puck? How can the Devils try to match Boston's depth? What really is the matter with Boston, I don't quite get it? Could the Devils win - gasp - three games in a row? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.